RAMON OLADIMEJI reports that Eti-Osa Local Government Area authorities have commenced a fierce legal battle to take over the control of popular Ikoyi Marriage Registry from the Federal Ministry of Interior. Three other LGAs are taking the same step against the Minister of Interior
The Ikoyi Marriage Registry, located at 17, Kingsway Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, has been previously described by writers as a hub of brisk weddings and fast-paced sundry business activities.
Touted as the most highly rated marriage registry in sub-Saharan Africa, no fewer than 140 couples are joined in marriage between Thursday and Saturday on a weekly basis. On each of the four days, an average of 35 weddings are conducted but this figure, it was learnt, could soar to between 80 and 100 during the peak period, which is towards the end of the year.
With an average of N25,000 charged per marriage, the Ikoyi Marriage Registry, no doubt, is a good earner of income for the Federal Ministry of Interior, which owns it.
The Federal Ministry of Interior has a replica of the Ikoyi Marriage Registry in each of Port Harcourt, Rivers State; Owerri, Imo state; and Benin City, Edo State.
Indeed, it was learnt that there are efforts by the ministry to spread the federal marriage registries to other states.
However, there is, at the moment, a lawsuit before the Federal High Court in Lagos seeking not only to dispossess the Ministry of Interior of the four marriage registries it currently controls but to also stop it from further spreading its tentacles to other states.
The suit marked, FHC/1/CS/1760/16, is before Justice Chuka Obiozor.
It was filed by the four local government areas in the country, where the federal court registries are sited.
The plaintiffs are Egor Local Government Area of Edo State; Eti-Osa Local Government Area of Lagos State; Owerri Municipal Local Government Area of Imo State; and Port Harcourt City Local Government Area of Rivers State.
Joined as defendants in the suit are the Minister of Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau, and the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN).
The LGAs, through their counsel, Mr. Michael Roger, are urging the court to determine if by virtue of Section 1(5) Paragraph 1(i) of the 1999 Constitution, the Federal Ministry of Interior, an agency of the Federal Government, has any business registering marriages as it currently does.
The plaintiffs are urging the court to hold that registration of marriages is the exclusive preserve of local government areas by virtue of Section 1(5) Paragraph 1(i) of the 1999 Constitution.
Over the years, the federal marriage registries have existed alongside registries owned by local government areas in the plaintiffs' four states.
But in spite of the existence of the local government-owned marriage registries, majority of couples prefer to have their marriage solemnised at the federal marriage registries as opposed to the registries owned by local government areas.
There is a belief that the marriage certificate issued by the federal marriage registry is superior to that issued by the local government marriage registry.
And it is this belief that has overtime helped the federal marriage registries to take the shine off the numerous local government marriage registries existing in the states of the four plaintiffs.
Indeed, couples, for instance, travel from every part of Lagos to have their marriages solemnised at the Ikoyi federal marriage registry, while ignoring the several local government area registries in their localities.
This current suit before Justice Obiozor at the Federal High Court is, therefore, one filed in furtherance of the existing supremacy battle going on between the federal marriage registry and the several local government areas' marriage registries.
The way the mind of an average intending husband or wife works in relation to which marriage registry to approach was exemplified in the case of Prince Olusola Adeyemi and Jumoke Salako (not real names), who sometime in 2002 had to approach the court to seek answer to which is the valid marriage registry to have their marriage solemnised.
As explained in the ruling finally delivered in their case by Justice Oyindamola Olomojobi of the Federal High Court on June 8, 2002, Adeyemi, who was a prince in one of the communities in the Eti-Osa Local Government Area of Lagos State, had told his fiancée, Salako, that he preferred for them to have their marriage solemnised in the marriage registry owned by the Eti-Osa Local Government Area.
This, he said, was because that was where he was born and bred before moving to Britain where he was based at the time of the proposed marriage.
Salako, on the other hand, preferred the marriage to take place at the Ikoyi Registry owned by the Federal Ministry of Interior as she believed that the certificate issued would be accorded more respect by the Home Office in Britain when she finally travelled to join her husband there.
The couple failed to reach a common ground, following which they approached a counselor for advice.
The counselor, according to Justice Olomojobi's ruling, conducted his search and later told them that marriage certificates issued by both Ikoyi Registry and the Eti-Osa Local Government Area Registry were valid.
The counselor added that he had also consulted a lawyer, who assured him that Eti-Osa Local Government Area was conferred with the power to conduct marriages.
But the couple, in the affidavit they filed in support of their suit before Justice Olomojobi, marked, FHC/L/870/2002, said they had to eventually resort to seeking an answer from the court to be sure of their decision.
"That in a bid to prevent unforeseen circumstances which may affect our proposed marriage, I and the first defendant applicant instructed our solicitors, Tijani Ishola and Company, to seek court interpretation on the issues contained in the originating summons.
"That I (Salako) realise that a life relationship, which I intend to enter into with the first applicant (Adeyinka), requires caution and carefulness, more so, the first applicant (Adeyinka) is resident in Europe and in a bid to join him, the first applicant (Adeyinka) may be called upon to present all necessary documents pertaining to our marital status.
"That Tijani Ishola, my counsel, informed me and I verily believe that it is only the honourable court that is competent to interprete and give legal opinion on the issues raised," Salako averred.
Both Adeyinka and Salako filed the suit as the first and second applicants respectively.
They joined the Eti-Osa Local Government Area, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice and the Minister of Internal Affairs as the first, second and third respondents respectively in the case.
At the hearing of the case, the applicants' counsel, Ishola, had pointed the attention of the court to Section 71(5) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which, he said, captured the functions that local government authorities were empowered to carry out.
Ishola submitted that since the constitution was supreme, any correspondence entered by the Eti-Osa Local Authority on behalf of his clients, who were an intending couple, would be deemed valid, if the couple decided to solemnise their marriage at the local government.
The counsel who appeared for the Eti-Osa Local Government Area in the case, whose name was not stated in the ruling, had aligned himself with the submission by Ishola.
He also directed the attention of Justice Olomojobi to Section 71(5) of the 1999 constitution and Paragraph 1(i) of the Fourth Schedule to the same constitution.
He also referred the judge to the National Population Decree No. 23 of 1989 and submitted that since registration of births and deaths were within the purview of the National Population Commission what was left for the local government was the function of registering all marriages.
Referring to the Local Government Reforms of 1970, which, he noted, had designated the local government as the third tier of government, the counsel said "there is no power in any federal agency or state government to register marriages," stressing that "when the constitution confers a function on a body, it is only the constitution that can take it from that body."
"It is illegal and unlawful for the Ministry of Internal Affairs to interfere in marriage registration or contracting of marriages," the counsel argued.
In her ruling, Justice Olomojobi noted, "What struck my mind is the position of the first respondent (Eti-Osa Local Government Area) in the instant suit (by the couple). It appears to me that it (Eti-Osa LGA) is acting in concert with the applicants. And that it ought to have been made one of the applicants to this action. But the learned (applicants') counsel had decided to make it a respondent."
In her final analysis of the case, Justice Olomojobi held, "Lawful bodies or authorities, which can celebrate or contract marriages for intending persons, who are desirous of getting married as husbands and wives are: 1. Registrars in places designated as an office 2. Recognised ministers of religion in a licenced place of worship 3. Marriages contracted under the licence granted by the Director-General, Ministry of Internal Affairs; Director-General of a state government in charge of marriages; any officer in the afore-stated ministries and of course, the Minister of Internal Affairs."
The judge, however, added that, "As regards registration of marriages only, this is within the marriage district (local government) in accordance with the provisions of Section 30(1) of the Marriage Act and Section 7(5) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria of 1999 and Paragraph 1(i) of the Fourth Schedule of the same constitution."
It is this instant ruling of Justice Olomojobi that Eti-Osa Local Government Area and the three other LGAs had brought as an exhibit attached to their suit before Justice Obiozor, seeking to dispossess the Ministry of Interior of the federal marriage registries in their states.
The four LGAs are, through their lawyer, Roger, urging Justice Obiozor to declare that "by virtue of Section 1(5) and Paragraph 1(i) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the registration of marriages is within the exclusive authority of the registrar within a local government area."
They are also urging Justice Obiozor to declare that "contracting and registration of marriages by the federal Ministry of Interior under the Federal Marriage Registry, Ikoyi, Lagos, Owerri, Imo State, Port Harcourt Government Council, Rivers State and others outside the legislative competence of the National Assembly is unconstitutional, null and void."
They are also seeking an order of interlocutory injunction, "restraining the first respondent (Minister of Interior), either by himself, his agencies or servants from further establishing any federal marriage registry in any part of the local government areas in Nigeria."
They are also praying the court for an order sealing the federal marriage registries established by the Minister of Interior in Lagos, Imo, Edo and Rivers states.
The case came up on Monday, February 27, 2017 before Justice Obiozor.
The applicants were represented by Mr. Adedayo Oluyide but neither the Minister of Interior nor the AGF was represented.
Justice Obiozor, in a bench ruling, granted a prayer by the applicants to amend their processes. The judge also granted an order for the applicants to serve the court processes on the defendants outside jurisdiction.
"Upon service, the parties shall have no more than 30 days," the judge held and adjourned the case till April 6, 2017.